Belvoir kicked off its 2017 season with Future D. Fidel’s Prize Fighter, an exceptionally written piece about a brilliant young boxer on track for huge success but encumbered by the demons of his early life, when he was a child solider in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the heart of Fidel’s story was the need for Isa, the central character, to properly confront his traumatic past in order to be able to meaningfully move forward. In wrapping up the year with the world premiere production of Barbara and the Camp Dogs, written by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, artistic director Eamon Flack has chosen to send off 2017 with a work that focuses on another scenario where individuals, culture and the past collide.
Barbara and the Camp Dogs is set in contemporary Sydney. Barbara (Yovich) and René (Elaine Crombie) are two Aboriginal women, originally from Katherine. Both are struggling singers, taking any gig around the city they can get. Soon, they learn that Jill, René’s birth mother and Barbara’s adoptive mother, is critically ill and has been taken to Darwin for treatment. The two soon head for Darwin and then ultimately return to their home in Katherine.
While René immediately instigates plans to return to the Territory upon learning of her mother’s illness, Barbara by contrast is reluctant to return home. That’s because, for Barbara, making such a pilgrimage means re-opening old wounds and confronting reminders of the painful, formative experiences that saw her permanently separated from much-loved family members. It was her sense of abandonment that led to Barbara becoming tough as nails, and pushing anyone away who got too close. But this way of living is destructive and unsustainable, and if Barbara is to have the love of family once again in her life, it will mean having to break down the barriers and let love in.
As well as writing dialogue for the 90-minute show, Yovich and Valentine, together with Adm Ventoura (and some contributions from co-producer Vicki Gordon, as well as Merenia Gillies and James Warwick Shipstone) have penned a pub rock-inspired collection of songs to underscore the play, which are performed by an enormously talented three-piece band (musical director and bass player, Jessica Dunn; drummer, Michelle Vincent; and guitarist, Debbie Yap). The dynamic score includes tracks evoking the quintessential gutsy pub-rock sound, and others that take the tempo down and underline the melancholy and sometimes downright tragedy of the piece.
Under the direction of Leticia Cáceres (the immensely talented director at the helm of Belvoir’s 2016 Helpmann Award-winning triumph, The Drover’s Wife), Barbara and the Camp Dogs is both greatly entertaining and gut-punching theatre. The journey that Barbara and René make to country, and the manner in which the ghosts of the past emerge, is compelling and at times brings uncomfortable truths home. It culminates in the performance of ‘Let in the love’, a song that beautifully articulates the brave act of hope that Barbara must make, in order to change her life going forward.
The action all unfolds on Stephen Curtis’ terrific set, which perfectly captures the look and feel of a Sydney pub. It works surprisingly well as a backdrop even when the narrative moves to northern Australia. Similarly, Steve Toulmin’s sound design makes the experience of sitting back and watching Barbara and the Camp Dogs in action feel almost incomplete without a drink in hand.
Yovich is wonderful in the title role, initially drawing laughs as the crude and combative singer, but later drawing out our understanding as the raw realities of her childhood play out. She convinces not just in her performance of the dialogue, but the authentic emotion she is able to convey through song. As her sister, René, Crombie is something of a polar opposite to Barbara – even-tempered (but able to hold her own in confrontation), and rational in her thinking, often the steadying voice of reason that her sister needs to hear. It’s a similarly strong performance, again enhanced by her great vocals, charged with delivering some of the show’s most soul-infused pieces.
The bulk of the play is carried by Yovich and Crombie (with help from the band members) until Barbara’s biological brother, Joseph (Troy Brady), appears late in the evening, playing an integral role in helping his sister to release the feelings which she holds to so fast. In fact, Joseph’s scene with Barbara is one of the play’s most affecting sequences, with simple but powerful dialogue that makes a compelling case for biting the bullet and choosing to make peace with one’s self, while appreciating the extent of the difficulty in doing so.
Australia’s treatment of its Indigenous people is shameful on so many levels and there is so much with which to reconcile. It is one thing to feel alienated from country and culture, but there is something so devastating about the loss of family. This makes Barbara’s response so brave. As a middle-aged white man once said, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see”. Barbara and the Camp Dogs reminds us that moving forward can only occur by coming to terms with the past and consciously deciding that it will not dictate the future.
BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 23 December
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444